A small ship for a big war?

Looks like DARPA‘s latest idea is making waves in more ways than one.  Real Clear Defense reports:

The prototype boat in DARPA’s ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program, the Sea Hunter, is beginning sea trials. Sailing last week from Portland to San Diego, she’ll undergo two years of testing to determine whether an unmanned ship under “sparse human control” can trail Iranian, Russian, or Chinese diesel submarines exiting port. If she works, she’ll relieve the Navy’s very capable-but-expensive destroyers of that duty. She may also seriously change the way war at sea would be fought.

Worth rereading is Greg Jaffe’s article of fifteen years ago on Admiral Cebrowski’s idea of the ‘Streetfighter’—“Debate Surrounding Small Ship Poses Fundamental Questions for U.S. Navy” (Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2001). At the time, the big issues were dispersion of power and expendability of single units. Like a small airplane, a 1,000-ton vessel with a small crew could be lost without national trauma. The original concept thus called for a ship of similar cost to a fighter jet—perhaps $100 million. The eventual result, however, was the Freedom and Independence classes of littoral combat ship. At 3,000 tons, they were pretty much lightly-armed frigates to begin with.

Since that programmatic trauma, DARPA has been working on something yet smaller, and wholly unmanned. The 145-ton, unarmed Sea Hunter will be a far cheaper way of trailing or chasing submarines than sending a 3,000-ton frigate or a 9,000-ton destroyer. As National Defense magazine noted, at the start of the program, DARPA was aiming for a serial production cost of $20 million per ship. Excluding design and software expenses, Leidos and Vigor Shipyard are delivering the prototype for under $23 million. That’s a bit more, but in serial production, bulk parts purchasing and the learning curve would produce much cheaper ships. All the better, DARPA’s program manager Scott Littlefield expects operations to cost between $15,000 and $20,000 per day. That broadly compares to the flying costs of an MQ-9 Reaper.

There’s more at the link.  It makes very interesting reading.

A few weeks ago we examined Israel’s latest entry into the unmanned surface vehicle market – the Seagull.  The Sea Hunter is larger, of course, but the principle is the same – keep the crew on shore, where they can operate the vessel remotely.  A lot will depend on producing jam-proof, hack-proof satellite communications (not forgetting that China, Russia and the USA are hard at work developing anti-satellite warfare capabilities).

Now, if we can just persuade the Navy that they don’t need any more admirals to direct, control and manage these unmanned vehicles . . .



  1. DARPA proves the concept, somebody else reduces it to practice.
    Don't expect to see anything deployable for 10-20 years unless the program threatens to run out of money first.

    Saying that it looks to be a better mine hunter/killer platform than the older boats still being used.


  2. We used to have small, lightly armed ships. We called them Destroyer Escorts. The one I was on, Courtney (DE-1021) was only 1900 tons. Those little Crappy Ships are quite a bit larger. Doing away with the DEs was a serious mistake.

    1. Took me a sec…did you mean Little Crappy Ships? As in LCS? If so, I wouldn't know, but the acronym made me giggle.

  3. Yeah, in critical circles LCS has come to mean "Little Crappy Ship." Given their performance so far, the sobriquet fits.

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